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Ep. 110 - Tax Compliance and Automation for Online Store Owners with Liz Armbruester

Liz Armbruester oversees global compliance operations at Avalara. Liz brings more than 20 years of leadership experience from a variety of technology sectors including software, media and services and is known for her strong track record of innovative problem solving, process optimization and ability to deliver automation for efficiency and scale. 

Her strong commitment to operational excellence and aptitude for partnering cross-functionally helped her drive value in her prior roles with Vubiquity, a provider of content monetization technology, and Zilog, a computing microcontroller manufacturer 

In This Conversation We Discuss: 

  • [00:00] Intro
  • [01:19] Taxes and Liz’s history in Ecom
  • [04:23] Sponsor: Avalara avalara.com/honest
  • [05:12] COVID’s challenge and opportunity to Ecom
  • [08:54] State and marketplace tax differences
  • [10:19] Sponsor: Rewind rewind.com/honest
  • [10:57] The process of tax remittance
  • [12:54] Understanding tax nexus
  • [15:41] Sponsor: Klaviyo klaviyo.com/honest
  • [17:10] Does it end on just sales tax?
  • [18:32] The easy way to be tax-compliant
  • [21:39] Sponsor: Gorgias gorgias.grsm.io/honest
  • [22:28] When would a store owner think about tax?
  • [28:17] Get started early on automation
  • [29:42] Where to find Liz

Resources:

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Transcript:

Liz Armbruester  

Automation allows a business owner not to focus on something that doesn't contribute to the bottom line but rather freeze them up, to focus on things that do drive dollars to the bottom line

Chase Clymer  

Welcome to Honest Ecommerce, where we're dedicated to cutting through the BS and finding actionable advice for online store owners. 

I'm your host, Chase Clymer. And I believe running an online business does not have to be complicated or a guessing game. 

If you're struggling with scaling your sales, Electric Eye is here to help. To apply to work with us visit electriceye.io/connect to learn more. Now let's get on with the show.

Hey, everybody. Welcome back to another episode of Honest Ecommerce. I'm your host, Chase Clymer. And today we're going to talk [about] a topic that we haven't actually covered thus far --I don't believe. 

So today, we're going to talk about taxes, --which I'm sure is everyone's favorite topic. But I'm bringing to the table --to the microphone, I guess-- an expert in the field. Everyone welcome, Liz Armbruester from Avalara. How are you doing today?

Liz Armbruester  

I am doing very well. Thank you for having me on the podcast.

Chase Clymer  

Oh, you're very welcome. So let's just dive right in. Give me [the details of] how you ended up at Avalara and why should someone take what you have to say about taxes  seriously?

Liz Armbruester  

Well, great question. And love to talk about tax. I recognize it's not everybody's favorite topic, as you said. But it is really interesting. And it is shifting and changing. 

And so if you like to be in a world where nothing is constant, this is a great space for you to be in (laughs). I didn't set out to be a part of a tax company. 

However, I do like solving really hard problems. And I had been working in the media industry, actually thinking about how to automate the movement of media from effectively the people who generate content: Digital files, live streaming TV, out to those of us who like to consume it. 

And to do it in a really efficient, scalable way. And I had an opportunity presented to me that looked and felt really similar to that, but it was in the world of tax. 

And I guess, at the... The only time that I really spent really contemplating taxes when I was buying something. So I'd be at Nordstroms, or whatever my favorite retailer was. And the $100 pair of shoes I was buying all of a sudden became $110. 

And so that was my relativity to tax. But this opportunity presented itself to think about... Tax had been done for so many years in a really manual way. And here in the US alone, we've got 12,000 taxing jurisdictions. 

And you can imagine --with that volume of state and local tax-- that trying to get it right is really, really hard. 

And especially if you try to do it in a manual way. And so the more I got invested into this opportunity and the more I learned about thinking what this company, Avalara, was doing to really automate the world of manual, challenging, complex tax and make it digital and make it easier for businesses, the more appealing it became. 

And as I thought about what I was doing in the world of digital content, --tax content in particular-- the process of one's tax has been calculated, and it needs to get to a taxing authority. 

You've got to put all that documentation on to paper or submitted electronically and you've got to submit those taxes. 

It became something that was both challenging from a problem to solve to do so scalably, but the benefit to businesses everywhere and the relief that that would provide for, especially, smaller businesses to medium size that don't have an army of tax people at their disposal would just be really fantastic. 

It allows them... Automation allows a business owner not to have to focus on something that really doesn't contribute to the bottom line, but rather frees them up to focus on things that really do drive dollars to the bottom line for their business. 

So [it's a] challenging problem, [a] big scope, [a] really untapped market, [those] were all appealing to me. And that's when I chose to make the jump into tax back in 2013 and haven't looked back since.

Chase Clymer  

Awesome. Yes.

Sponsor: Avalara

Since 2004, Avalara's vision has been to harness the power of cloud technology to help simplify sales tax for businesses of all sizes. Avalara solutions are designed to affordably scale with businesses as they grow over time. 

Tax Compliance is not a revenue generating activity. So Avalara's technology is designed to help you manage compliance as efficiently and accurately as possible so you can reclaim your valuable time and reduce risk in your business. 

With more than 1000 signed to partner integrations, Avalara likely integrates with the ERP, Ecommerce, mobile payment and point of sale systems you use today. 

Find out how your business can be sales tax ready at avalara.com/honest. That's A-V-A-L-A-R-A.com/H-O-N-E-S-T. 

Avalara. Tax Compliance done right. 

Chase Clymer  

So you definitely... You're probably... Where you started with your experience is probably where a lot of store owners, and listeners, and young entrepreneurs, experience with tax ends. 

In the same boat, you have to pay tax sometimes in certain ways. It's not really something that when you set out to build a business or build a brand, that is the number one driver behind it. 

Like, "You know what? I think tax is interesting. So that's where I'm going to focus all my time." So I guess, what's the landscape look like for an Ecommerce brand? And why are taxes so difficult for them? 

I believe it's something that they're more experiencing as they hit a more growing stage of the business. It's not necessarily on most people's radars, when they're just getting started. Does that question make sense?

Liz Armbruester  

It makes total sense. And yes, you're right. Yeah, I would go back to that statement you just made. Nobody really gets into business to have to focus on tax. It's just one of those things you have to do. 

The compliance side is not is not always fun. It can be very, very challenging. But that's why we're here. That's why automation exists to help businesses. They focus on the things that they are passionate about doing. 

But when I think about Ecommerce sellers in particular, it is both a great time to be an Ecommerce seller and a really challenging time to be an Ecommerce seller. And I say that because when you think about COVID, probably a few people may have foresaw or predicted a global pandemic at some point. 

But most of us didn't really see it coming. And I love to think about the small businesses that are out there that maybe had an ecommerce presence and maybe had a storefront prior to 2020. And the opportunity... 

The challenge and the opportunity that COVID presented to ensure that their business data flow was really interesting. And many businesses have shifted to go online, create their own storefront or do so through a marketplace. 

And while many have overcome that challenge and and done so successfully, what it invites is two-fold: the good and the bad. You can sell to more people, all of a sudden [it] opened up your market. 

And I think about a small mom and pop shop in Washington that had really just established kind of a small online presence, but most of their buyers were local. 

And all of a sudden, fast forward 3 or 4 months, if you google their product, and you happen to be in Kansas, or New York, or Florida or name any other state, potentially, up pops this little business that's out there in Washington. And so that business has expanded its opportunity to sell. 

And yet, if a business doesn't understand the compliance tax challenges that come along with that larger footprint, they could get themselves in a lot of hot water. And so the seller's' opportunity certainly is met with a complex matrix of tax obligations, again, whether they're selling through their own channels and/or they're selling through marketplaces. 

Those laws can get really difficult to track. And again, the more channels they sell through as you begin to think about aggregation of your month end data, that can be really challenging for business owners, too. 

So, there's some good and there's some bad. I think the good news, and all of that is there is automation out there. There's a lot of knowledge and information that businesses can tap into to help them understand and navigate that environment.

Chase Clymer  

Alright. So you said something there that actually surprised me. And I was gonna ask this question. So when you're selling through another marketplace... So let's just say that you have sold... You have an Amazon channel and you're selling your product there as well. Amazon's not taken care of the taxes for you?

Liz Armbruester  

So it's really different in every state and it's different across marketplaces. So this is all unfolding. And that's part of the challenge of really understanding marketplace facilitator laws. So the collection... Sometimes it's a collection and a remit that they will do and largely that's what Amazon is doing. 

In other places, it might be that the marketplace is calculating for you but it's your obligation to remit. And either way, you have to understand what even if the marketplace is doing the remittance what it looks like on your tax return. 

Because Amazon's not doing your tax return for you. You're doing your tax return in whatever state that looks like. So you've got to know "Hey, I sold this much through my storefront. My physical retail space. 

This is how much maybe I've sold through my own Ecommerce channel. And then here's what also has sold on my Amazon Marketplace." And the sum of those sales need to be reported and you've got to know what Amazon remitted on your behalf. 

Or maybe other marketplace hasn't remitted on your behalf based on what the rules in the state are.

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Chase Clymer  

You've used "remit" a few times here, can we just clarify that for the ones that are very new to this?

Liz Armbruester  

Absolutely. So when I use the word "remit", I'm talking about the actual tax liability: The payment itself. 

So 2 parts to the end of the compliance chain that businesses have to have to work themselves through. You start on the front with "Do I have an obligation to collect taxes and then remit them?" 

Of course, if you're collecting you have to remit to a taxing authority. And that's all established by “Do I have 'Nexus’?” 

Do I have an obligation to the state either through a physical mechanism... I have a storefront, I have salespeople, etc. Or through an economic nexus meaning... Oftentimes, I'm selling a certain number of transactions into that state or I have met a total sales threshold. Maybe it's $100,000-$200,000. 

[They] are very common tax sales thresholds in states. And if you have that, you have an obligation to collect and remit. And so again, you've got to keep track of the sales. You've got to know what the laws are, etc, in each of those states, either through a physical nexus connection, or an economic nexus connection. 

But you do all that, you collect the taxes, you try to get the right rates and do that. And at the end of the period, whether that's the month or the quarter, maybe the half year, or maybe the annual depending on what your filing frequency is as determined by the state you're filing in or the locality. 

That's where the remittance part comes in. So you create a tax return. And then that tax return says, "Hey, I had 100 sales for $100,000. And I have $10,000 in tax I have to remit." 

That remittance has to go to that state through one mechanism either electronically or through paper processing through a check.

Chase Clymer  

Absolutely. And when you use the term "nexus", is that a fancy word for tax liability? Amore sexy word for it? Or do you want to add some clarification between the two?

Liz Armbruester  

Yeah, Nexus is a little bit of a tough concept sometimes for people to get. And so you're coming into this environment, as I said earlier, the (people) only understand out of basic knowledge of transactional tax. 

And so [I] didn't study it in school, but [I] certainly have a much broader understanding of the complexity of it and the nature of it today. 

And so yeah, I've had to grapple with these issues and understanding the concepts just like somebody new into business would be. And so I think about nexus in the following way: It's really the connection that you have with the state. 

And by that, I mean, "Do you again, have a physical retail store that connects you? You're selling into that state? Or do you have sales people?" [These] are 2 of the most common ways that you would establish a physical nexus. 

Or "Have I created a relationship with the state because I'm selling to residents in that state?" So I'm a business in Washington and I've developed a following for my product in the state of Kansas. And sales are through the roof. 

And so for the state of Kansas... Well, Kansas is a bad one, because anybody selling it there for economic Nexus qualifies... Or any sales into that qualify for economic nexus. Let's choose a different state that maybe has a threshold of $100,000 in sales. 

Well, I haven't really created an economic connection to that state until I meet their defined threshold: Number of transactions or total sales. And sometimes it could be... It's an either/or. It's both. 

And so that's the way I think about nexus. And when you create that connection in the states' eyes or the localities' eyes, then you have an obligation to follow through the rest of the compliance milestones which are:

  • I have to be able to know whether the thing I'm selling is taxable to whom. 
  • And if the product is taxable itself, get the tax right at the point of sale. 
  • And then at the end of the tax period, again, ensure that I've created a summary report in the US in the form of a tax return. 

And then I send that off to the state along with whatever the calculated tax liability is. Does that help?

Chase Clymer  

Oh, it helps me. But I'm a little bit more familiar with this. So I hope that I pose the questions in the ways that help other people understand. 

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Chase Clymer  

So when we're talking about selling these products online, is it more than just sales tax that people need to be cautious of when they are selling? Let's just say that for now to keep it simple before we talk about international later, talking... 

Selling to the continental United States, is the only thing I need to be wary of [are] those established connections to those states where we're doing this quite a bit of business? 

[The] only thing I need to keep track of is the sales tax and make sure that's right? Or is it more than that?

Liz Armbruester  

No, it really depends. It's my favorite phrase in tax. I've learned to say this often. And it's (laughs)... It's just the caveat to everything. It depends. It depends on what you're selling. It depends on to whom you're selling. 

So oftentimes you're having to deal with business and occupation taxes depending on the product. Maybe it's a digital good. And maybe we're all of a sudden talking about streaming a digital good, for example. 

The taxability on that falls into the communication taxes. And that's just a whole different ball game.

So for many of the folks maybe listening to this podcast, it likely would center around sales and use taxes. But certainly that's not going to be the be-all, end-all. 

Chase Clymer  

I think that we have... 

Liz Armbruester  

It depends on the "what".

Chase Clymer  

Yeah. I think that we've really established here that tax law is super friendly and easy to understand. (laughs) No, it's not. It's definitely... Well, it's because America. 

We leave it down to the states and the states can do whatever the heck they want. Commerce is great. And you can have your views on capitalism, but the one thing it is, it's super confusing to do interstate commerce. 

And that's what Ecommerce is. It's like, really ]letting] people do... And the rise of these amazing platforms like Shopify, have just made Ecommerce explode. So let's pivot a little bit here to... 

My favorite thing is I'm lazy. How can I get away with this for less of my input of my time and energy?

Liz Armbruester  

Well, naturally, automation. If you can let a system that can manage the complexity of tax do that for you, all the better. Because that's, that does give you the opportunity to free up your time to go focus on things that you want to do: Growing your business. right? 

"I want to go focus on marketing." "I want to go figure out how to create more demand." "I want to go figure out how to become more profitable." "And I don't want to have to worry about thinking on 'did I get the tax right?'" "Did I hit my deadline, etc."

So, there are lots of opportunities for businesses to consider. Again, beginning at the start of the food chain, when you think about compliance obligations, there are tools. And Avalara has a couple out there. 

If you were to log on to our website at avalara.com, and want to assess whether you have an obligation to collect and remit because you are selling online and you think you might be approaching these thresholds, just a simple input of your transactional data can produce results and tell you in a nice little red, yellow, green, graphic. 

"Hey, you've already crossed the threshold. Maybe you're approaching or you're nowhere near it yet. But understand that you can come back tomorrow or you can come back in 2 months and upload your new data and figure out where you're at.” 

So whether it's that or whether it's allowing a system to calculate the tax due on your sales in a cloud service, that certainly is a huge opportunity that many businesses find really valuable. 

Or maybe it's the back end. It's actually filing the returns and making sure everything ticks and ties and I get my tax liability to wherever it needs to go on time so I don't have to worry about penalties and interest around being late. 

And tax automation specialists like us do that everyday. We live it, we breathe it, we actually really enjoy the complexity of tax. And managing all of the thousands of rates, rules, and boundary changes that... Again, the independence you've talked about, affords the US states and localities to do.

Chase Clymer  

Awesome.

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Chase Clymer  

Thanks. you answered that in a perfect way. But you did leave me a great opening for a specific question, which was... I know you're gonna say it depends. But I'm gonna try to get... 

Try to squeeze a little bit more of an answer out of you. When in my startup... Where in my startup phase or my growing process --be it dollars per year that we're doing gross revenue... 

When does this matter? Or when should this be more top of mind for me?

Liz Armbruester  

Yes, of course, it depends. But I will go a little bit deeper on that for you. I think as a business, you have to think about it in a couple of different ways. 

And I look at the environment that a business is operating in across a couple of different levers, if you will. So one would be the geography. "Am I just selling in one state? Am I selling in more than one state." I use the rule of fives. 

If I'm out of one and I'm doing high volume, then maybe I would consider it. If I'm only in one and maybe lower volume or the number of products that I have is really small, then maybe that's something you can handle in-house. 

But really when you start to add complexity of geography, complexity of what I'm selling, to whom I'm selling, and where those people are, those are the functional leavers I look at and say, "Hey, listen, when those start to rise and especially when multiples of those start to rise, then the value add is pretty obvious." 

The return on investment that you would make into automation just becomes really, really evident. And that's oftentimes what we see as customers are thinking about... I guess, I would say one other thing, how fast you're exploding in those areas also. 

So if you don't think for example, for another year that you would be getting into a second geography or adding a second or a third product, okay, maybe today is not the time to do that. 

But if you're saying, "Hey, our company's got 3 or 4 or 5 new products coming out in the next 2 to 3 months. And oh, by the way, we really want to expand our geographic footprint." 

Spending time on trying to figure out tax is not going to be where you want your resources to be focused. You want to be making sure that the customers love those products and that they're returning for future business, etc. 

And that's where you'd want to hand off that automation to a specialist like us, because we can grow with your business. That's one of the things that I think oftentimes is a driver for businesses to get in early. 

Because once you get it, start that automation, we can grow as your business grows. We've got the ability to calculate tax as you add new products, as you expand your footprint, whether that's to the neighboring state or different city that you're operating in. 

Or maybe as you think about a lot of the businesses over the past several months have taken an opportunity to go beyond the borders and think about cross border. And all of a sudden, now I have to deal with customs and duties, import taxes. 

And oh, by the way, I might also have to deal with a new tax regime like that. So those are a couple different ways to think about it. So what do your growth levers look like? How rapidly are you accelerating those growth levers? 

And then where are you on the point of scale now? And are you in one tax type for maybe even considering a second?

Chase Clymer  

Yeah, I think that most of our listeners are... I think that the consideration of moving from one state to another state is like almost not a consideration. It's like, "Of course, I'm going to sell in any state that's going to buy my product." 

They're not thinking about that, especially when you're in that startup phase. Honestly, like I said, before these new platforms out there make it so easy. 

Once you hook up your Shopify store and you've got shipping and fulfillment figured out, you're ready to start selling. You're sending that to anyone who's buying it. 

So if I could try to maybe ask a more direct question would be, would this be something that would be on someone's radar that's sub a million dollars a year gross? 

Or is this more for people that are in that scaling stage? Obviously, our favorite answer is it depends. But there's the question.

Liz Armbruester  

No, I think... Honestly, I think it can be for anyone. And I think one or the other, aside from the answers I've already given, which is, the complexity of tax is just enormous. And it would be one thing to look at complexity in a status quo. 

But the fact is that just the 12,000 taxing jurisdictions in the US alone [that] love to change their rates, rules and boundaries all the time. So keeping up with that is just an enormous burden, let alone what you would do internationally. 

So I would say, really anybody that wants to focus on ensuring that they can grow their business, whether they're a million dollars, or $10 million, or $100,000 can benefit from the automation of tax. It's just allowing them to... 

As they want to grow their business, grow with them, it allows them to focus on what's valuable and can add to the bottom line, as opposed to compliance, which doesn't. But I would also tell, you certainly can take away from the bottom line if you get it wrong. 

So I'm an advocate for getting it right out of the gates. And when it's right for the business to jump into that space, to have an automation partner to help them enable growth.

Chase Clymer  

Yeah. You always want to make sure that you have the systems in place that are gonna help you succeed (laughs) rather than scramble when you need them. That's usually the worst time to try to figure it out.

Liz Armbruester  

Yeah. Think about... A little bit off topic. But think about the shift that we all made when March --whatever the date was-- when everybody said, "Go home." (laughs) The first week of March. 

The companies that were prepared to help enable their workforce stay focused and be productive... Technology and automation really helped a lot of those companies, maybe not skip a beat, but really made the shift a lot easier. 

And for those companies who were more tied to physical technologies, whether they were in the office, or whether processes that they had were focused on the physical nature of having a person go into an office and move paper or have to be connected to somebody else physically, it was really, really challenging to make those shifts. 

And so, I just think technology in general, and automation in general certainly is an accelerator and an enabler. And so get it in early, make it happen. Because again, tax is one of those things where you just don't want to be on the wrong side of it. 

And [that] can really be paralyzing if you find yourself in that spot.

Chase Clymer  

Now, if somebody This is resonating with them, and they're interested in learning more about Avalara or reaching out to you, what would be the best next steps for them?

Liz Armbruester  

Yeah. So I think, a couple of different ways. A lot of times, we get customers that are of course interested in our services, but oftentimes that comes because they're interested in trying to solve a tax problem. 

They want to understand content, they want to understand how tax liability applies to them, etc. And so oftentimes it's a quick Google search, they end up on one of our pages. We put a lot of our content out there and make it available. 

We've really got some great blogs that help people kind of demystify tax and really put it into terms that people can understand and then do something with. It becomes actionable for them. 

But certainly the.com site is the best way to get in contact with us and [we'll be] happy to help answer questions around how it applies, how it can help your business, content and tax ability, etc. 

Or just thoughts you have around growing your business and potentially where do you have risk? And how would you mitigate that? 

Like I said, we've got some really cool tools available on our website that help people understand concepts and help people understand risk profile they have around tax to enable them to make decisions about what's best for them moving forward,

Chase Clymer  

I can actually agree. I am a nerd. And I've definitely ended up on some of your content before researching things for various endeavors that I have going on. 

So I can attest to the amount of content and the thought that they put into that content. So I definitely think if you have questions like you possibly just might end up on that site anyway.

Liz Armbruester  

Yeah. I think one of our key objectives is to simplify tax. And that takes shape in a lot of the things that we do. But when you think about it, from a business's perspective, we are here to automate, we are here to simplify. 

But oftentimes, like I said, that comes in the form of, of making tax understandable. The concepts, how to apply it to your business, etc. And so we've got some phenomenal folks who do spend a lot of time as translators. Tax translators, if you will. 

Chase Clymer  

Oh yeah. 

Liz Armbruester  

Right? (laughs)

Chase Clymer  

Demystifying what it says.

Liz Armbruester  

Yeah, exactly. And so I think... That's immensely helpful for a really broad audience. 

Because let's just face it, there's a small percentage of folks out there who are really tax experts.And we love them and appreciate them. 

But having those translators who can really speak 2 languages --human and tax-- are really helpful.

Chase Clymer  

The more I learn about taxes, the less I feel like an expert. So let me just put that out there. (laughs)

Liz Armbruester  

Yeah, it's tough. I mean, it's, you know, so many different tax types. And as we've talked about so many different rules, they change all the time, etc. Yeah, hard to really feel like... 

Yes, you can become an expert. But there are many folks out there and oftentimes specialists as opposed to be more broad. 

But certainly a lot of tools and a lot of people [are] able to help businesses of any size deal with the compliance obligations.

Chase Clymer  

Awesome. Liz, I can't thank you enough for coming on the podcast today and sharing all those insights.

Liz Armbruester  

You're very welcome. And again, thank you for having me.

Chase Clymer  

I cannot thank our guests enough for coming on the show and sharing their journey and knowledge with us today. We've got a lot to think about and potentially add to our businesses. Links and more information will be available in the show notes as well. 

If anything in this podcast resonated with you and your business, feel free to reach out and learn more at electriceye.io/connect. Also, make sure you subscribe and leave an amazing review. Thank you!